The distinction between smartphones and dumb phones has continuously blurred over the past few years with the plummeting prices of smartphones and the increasing capabilities of the so called dumb phones. Nokia Asha 501 burrs this line further with smartphone like features at a low price point.
The Nokia Asha 501 sports a 3-inch QVGA (320×240) resolution display with capacitive touchscreen. The touchscreen is capable of discerning up to two simultaneous touches, which allows it to detect simple gestures like pinch-to-zoom. As far as picture clarity is concerned, it is what you’d expect from a display with 133 ppi pixel density. Viewing angles are decent, but I didn’t get the opportunity to test the display outdoors. With the Asha 501, Nokia is introducing its new OS called “Nokia Asha software platform”, which is targeted at budget handsets. The Asha software platform comes with its own app store, and as many as fifty preloaded apps. Asha apps are essentially Java apps, and apparently porting existing J2ME apps is fairly straight forward. Nokia has reached out to developers to ensure that the phone launches with popular games like Asphalt 6 (preloaded), Need for Speed Shift, and Ninja Fruit Cutter. Nokia’s excellent HERE maps is also supported, however isn’t preloaded. However, due to the absence of a dedicated GPS chip, it will presumably rely on cell towers for location information.
The Asha software platform seemed intuitive and well designed from the brief hands-on time I got with the 501. The user interface is strongly driven, with a swipe up bringing up a context menu, a swipe down revealing the notifications, and a swipe to the left or right opening the ‘Fastlane’. The Fastlane is sort of an extended notifications area that Nokia touts as the hub for your past, present, and future. The Fastlane keeps track of everything you’re doing and lists the past fifty activities. This includes your recent contacts, the apps you’ve used, and the songs you’ve listened to. Tapping on any one of the items opens up the relevant app. You can directly update your Facebook or Twitter stream from the Fastlane without having to open up a new app. Additionally, it shows the upcoming events from your calendar. The low-end hardware did cause some hiccups, and some of the apps seemed prone to crashing, but the phone behaved reasonably well. The apps developed by Nokia are mostly beautiful, especially the Alarm and Music app, however third-party apps were a bit all over the place.
On the multimedia front, there is a 3.15 megapixel rear camera, which performs about as well as you can expect a camera in this price range to perform. It captures QVGA video at 15 FPS and snaps images with a resolution of 2048×1536 pixels. The Asha 501 supports audio and video playback, and includes a well done music player that even allows you to share music with other Asha phones by tapping two handsets. This utilizes a new feature called ‘Slam’, which can also be used for sharing images and other files. Slam works like the tap to send features we see in high end handsets; however, instead of using NFC, which low-end smartphones don’t support, it works purely using Bluetooth. On the connectivity front, the Asha is a dual-SIM handset with 2G and W-Fi (b/g) support, but it leaves out 3G. This is a surprising omission from a handset that is otherwise pretty feature packed. Nokia believes that consumers who pick the Asha 501 over other budget smartphones like the Lumia 520 are unlikely to have 3G connectivity, which still remains fairly expensive. Given that according to TRAI, only about 2% of Indian mobile subscribers are on 3G, Nokia may be onto something. Nevertheless, I would certainly like to see a 3G enabled version in the future, even if it costs a thousand bucks more.
One of the biggest concerns with smartphones is its battery life. The Asha 501 comes with a 1200 mAh battery, which isn’t exactly massive. However, thanks to the Asha platform, Nokia expects the 501 to last at least a couple of days for most people. Talk time is rated at 17 hours, and music playback at 56 hours.
The Nokia Asha is a low-end smartphone meant for folks who want a capable touch screen phone from a reputed brand but are on an extremely tight budget. It’s available in six attractive colors (White, Black, Yellow, Red, Green, and Blue) and costs Rs. 5199. Spending about three thousand bucks more will get you the Lumia 520 or a bunch of low-end Android smartphones from the likes of Samsung, Sony, and LG. However, if you don’t have that extra three thousand, then Asha offers a tempting option. It allows you to upload pics on Facebook, check-in to Foursquare, follow latest trends on Twitter, surf websites on Nokia Express browser, listen to music, and more. The Asha 501 takes care of most basic user requirements, and throws in the convenience of a capacitive touchscreen. The lack of 3G still irks me; however, as far as first impressions go, the Asha made its mark on me.